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My mother's Mariel Odyssey

Posted on Saturday, 05.22.10
My mother’s Mariel Odyssey

A small, dirty, white boat. It’s rusted and smells of fish. Aboard: a collection of Cubans. Sixty in all.

Among them was my mother, Luisa Alonso, a single, 25-year-old woman, who would reluctantly assume the moniker la marielita.

My mother had always been a rebel, even in communist Cuba.

At 15 she was kicked out of high for refusing to march down El Malecon in celebration of La zafra de los 10 millones, or the 10 million tons of sugar harvest. At 19, she was kicked out of art for refusing to join el CDR, a Communist neighborhood watch.

So when a renegade bus driver rammed a crowded bus into the Peruvian embassy on April 1, 1980, infuriating and lighting the spark that led to the Mariel boatlift, my mother saw her opportunity to flee the island.

Cubans wanting out of the island rushed into the embassy. My mother was among them.

Within hours, the lush landscape surrounding the Peruvian embassy became a sea of people. Men without a place to sit or lay climbed trees to escape the masses; others remained perched on rooftops.

With strangers to each side and several neighbors practically piled on top of her, my mother managed to find a seat. Her feet falling just near someone’s head while another person’s arm dangled next to hers.

All breathing and sweating on one another.

“We thought they’d put us on a plane and send us to Peru,” my mother said. She had no idea that she would remain there for the next seven days. “There were 10,800 people all over the lawn — urinating, defecating, some even vomiting from heat stroke,” she said.

Once inside the gates, leaving became more dangerous than staying. Hordes of Cuban militia stood outside waiting to arrest any contra-revolucionista who dared to step out.

Just outside the fence, riots were beginning to break out. It had been roughly 12 hours since my mother had entered the embassy grounds. Comunistas picketing the Cubans on the other side of the fence were already yelling obscenities.

“It was the first time you heard the word escoria,” she said. Translation: dregs of society.

“There was a small, pale-faced old man just a few feet away from me when the men and women outside begun throwing rocks over the fence that guarded the embassy,” my mother said. “I thought for certain one of those rocks was destined towards my head but when I looked over, to the right of me was el pobre viejito, cupping his eye as blood ran down his cheek.

“They blinded him,” she said.

My mother didn’t pack any so she began the small tube of toothpaste she’d brought with her. Squeezing a dollop of the mint-flavored paste on her tongue, she’d let it melt in her mouth; hoping the menthol would kill her hunger.

A stranger seated next to her had a different idea. He’d been watching my mother scribbling in a small notebook she brought with her — one of the few things she could do to pass the time. He asked to “borrow” a sheet of paper. He then lit a small fire beneath a tin cup. Inside, a small dead bird mixed with droplets of water. Bird soup, he told her.

It wasn’t until the fourth day that she began to feel faint. Then came the nausea and on that afternoon she nearly passed out from hunger. were starting to evacuate the people inside, luring them with the possibility of temporary asylum and being able to see their families.

Makeshift immigration stations were assembled just outside the building so that immigration officers had somewhere to issue provisional passports for people who could no longer stand being inside.

With passports in hand, they were to go home and wait. Wait for their one-way ticket to Peru. Or, wait for State Security to barge in through the front doors and haul them off to jail for being contra-revolucionistas. My mother waited.

She didn’t trust police so she sat inside, arms crossed, hoping they’d whisk her off to Havana’s Jose Marti airport before her knees buckled from fatigue or an airborne rock hit her.

The days blurred together, but sometime on the sixth or seventh day it all proved to be too much. The scorching afternoons were chased away by drizzling rain, and somewhere between starvation and hypothermia, my mother caved and approached the immigration table. She was shaking.

“Go home. Someone from State Security will go to your home with instructions on where you are to report next,” the women barked from behind the table. The guards escorted her out to the streets of Miramar, the sun burning my mother’s face as she staggered home.

Two days later someone pounded her front door. The living room fell silent. My grandmother opened the door to find two men, dressed in starched, army-green military uniforms holding an envelope. She didn’t bother asking who they were looking for and signaled my mother to come to the door.

“You are to report to Abreu Fontan [a social club] at 6 p.m., ready for departure,” one of the men said coldly. And just as soon as he uttered his last syllable, before my mother could ask any questions, the two men were gone. It was 2 p.m.

“I was in shock; five, six days stuck in a putrid embassy, then home for less than two days and then, all of a sudden, we’re setting off somewhere unknown.”

A few hours later, my mother hopped in a taxi from the home she shared with my grandmother and four younger siblings en route to the club State Security had directed her to.

At Abreu Fontan, they loaded everyone into a large bus and drove them to an undisclosed location. She held back tears when she realized the bus wasn’t heading toward the airport but toward Mariel harbor.

“You don’t feel anything because you don’t know where you’re going

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